This was a question that came up on my Facebook author page among some mothers who’d read my book, “Don’t Try to Find Me.” Yes, my novel represents a very particular case but the desire to protect your kids is pretty universal.
Do all teens require online monitoring? How do you monitor? And what do you do with what you find out?
1) If you see any marked changes in your teenager’s behavior, it might be time to see what they’re up to online.
The fact that a teenager seems quiet might not be cause for concern. But a teenager who was once talkative and outgoing who is suddenly quiet–that’s something you want to look into, as a parent.
Often parents have an instinct that something is wrong but they try to explain it away. We all go into denial every now and again; it’s kind of a necessary survival skill, since parenting can sometimes feel like an overwhelming job. But another essential parenting skill is noticing, and the good news is, we can all become better at it, if we try.
2) When you sense something is off about your teen, ask him or her directly.
This one might seem obvious, but sometimes a parent goes into sleuth mode prematurely. You make the assumption that your child wouldn’t share, and so you go digging around. Sadly, once your son or daughter realizes you’re digging, he/she feels like you don’t trust them and then won’t trust you. It becomes a downward spiral.
Start by approaching your teen and expressing concern in a way that will feel empathetic and supportive. Say outright that they’re not going to get in trouble for talking with you. Then try to do more listening than talking, if your child is willing to open up. Being non-judgmental and staying calm no matter what you hear–those are some other skills that you might have to work at. If you’re not great at it, at least tell your child that you’re doing your best, you’re trying to learn.
3) Trust but verify.
You might not quite believe what your child is saying. That’s why you want to double-check: See if it seems consistent with what’s being represented across their social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.)
I recommend that you have all your teen’s passwords, no matter how trustworthy you feel your teen is. That’s because of item #1 on this list: Sometimes teenagers change suddenly. Make sure you get those passwords at a neutral point in your relationship, when you can explain that it’s just a precaution that every parent takes.
Also, telling them that you might take a peek now and again means that they won’t feel betrayed when you do.
And I’d suggest you actually do look once a month or more often, depending on what you observe in your teen and/or how forthcoming your child is with you. If you have a son or daughter who is relatively open with you and who spends a lot of time with friends in the house where you can do some casual monitoring, then you might feel a reduced need for online monitoring. If, however, you have a child who reveals little and spends almost no time at home, you’ll probably want to monitor more often.
4) Know what you’re looking for.
Again, it’s signs of change: Your child who used to post a lot now posts rarely. (Could signal isolation and depression.) The content of the posts has changed, or the people who are commenting on the posts are ones you don’t know, maybe even people who seem to have a nastier bent. (Possible cyber-bullying, or a new crowd that your child doesn’t want you to meet.)
So those are the warning signs. But there are also opportunities to further your relationship. By learning what your teenager is into, you can have more of a basis for conversation. Adolescents–more than perhaps any other demographic–care deeply about music, art, movies, and other media. It serves to define them: as members of a certain social subgroup, or as an individual. For a teen, you are what you like.
A parent’s greatest tool is simply taking a genuine interest.
5) Use punishment as a last resort.
It pits you against your teen and makes you feel like an enemy rather than an ally. Often, it just leads to your child doing a better job covering their tracks.
The best case scenario is increased openness in your relationship with your child, so that he or she will willingly seek help, if that’s what’s needed. It might be help from you, or from a professional. The goal is for your child to feel cared for and supported, not policed.